Philip Hensher

The spaces in between

Our fascination with canvases that have been abandoned or deliberately left ‘painterly’ should not blind us to the beauty of the finished work, says Philip Hensher

The unfinished is, of course, something which tells us about the history of a work of art’s creation. A work of art may have been interrupted by the artist’s death, as with the paintings that Klimt left behind in his studio. Or it may simply have been abandoned when a patron failed to fulfil his obligations, or the painter had grown bored with the subject and moved on to something else. These spaces and gaps give us a glimpse of an artist at work and invite us to speculate about what Mondrian, for instance, was doing abandoning the 1934 ‘Composition with Double Lines’ or Cézanne the 1898 ‘Bouquet of Peonies’. Did something better come along? Did the painting present too many problems? The unfinished work puts us in the same room as an artist about to make his next decision, and invites us to wonder what got in the way.

But uncompleted works are not just pieces of biographical information. Since classical times, their appeal has been understood, and artists have had to accept that what they leave unfinished may be exposed to the public, and may even be more admired than their finished productions. Some may embrace this enthusiasm for the unfinished and produce works which encapsulate the effect, featuring blank spaces and unstarted areas that were never intended to be any different from their scrappy appearance. Indeed, it is often a real problem for art scholars to determine whether a painting by Manet, for instance, can be regarded as finished or not. Inspired flight may on occasions be cunningly contrived.

Pliny’s insight into unfinished works is still highly suggestive:

The last works of artists and their unfinished pictures… are more admired than those which they finished, because in them are seen the preliminary drawings left visible and the artists’ actual thoughts, and in the midst of approval’s beguilement we feel regret that the artist’s hand while engaged in the work was removed by death.

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